"What's wrong with him?"
Carl's father has seen his son dwindle into a dark place since his mother left. Something not helped by his own drunkenness and neglect. It was weeks after that he noticed the child withdrawing even further into oblivion. His sister no longer escorted him home and he'd mope drearily into the house, turn on the computer and immerse himself in fantasy games. His complexion had become even more pallid and his conversational skills reduced to grunts and growls whenever asked to sit up to the table or complete even the simplest of chores. Never the brightest at school, even his teacher had called Wolf in to discuss the lack of progress with his son. This, combined with the most recent beating by school bullies, had left the child completely defeated and covered in bruises. He'd found his son curled in the foetal position near the house gate, followed home by a bunch of thugs who thought they'd pick on someone nowhere near their own size.
"Physically? He'll be fine Wolf. Just a few bruises. Psychologically? He's a little withdrawn, shy. Not unusual for a 13 year old."
Dr Bayliss removed the end of the stethoscope from the waifish child's chest and applied the sphygmomanometer band, before slipping a thermometer beneath the youth's tongue.
"He's at an awkward age." Bayliss ignores the boy before him as he pumps air into the armband.
"Boys at this stage of their development often feel awkward, insecure and a little intimidated by the onset of manhood. Carl's always been a shy type. Perhaps I could suggest some physical activity that involves a partner, or a team. Something to get him out in the fresh air, work those limbs and bulk him up a little? Might do his confidence some good and teach those bullies to think twice before they pick on him. Ey Carl?"
Wolf looks at his son. Pale, semi-clad in baggy boxer shorts, eyes downcast at the floor as the apparatus is removed from his skinny arm.
"What do you think Carl? Would you like to play soccer, or footy? Maybe go to Tennis Camp in the holidays?"
His father, dealing with his own grief would love to just get rid of the child for a few weeks, let the whole thing sink in and begin to adjust.
The boy shrugs with the lumpy disinterest indicative of a pre-pubescent man.
"Like I said Wolf, physically, the boy is fine. Any anxieties or withdrawal is purely pschological. He's battling a few demons at school I hear?" Again, every word spoken as if Carl was absent.
"Yeh, but this is the worst bit of biffo he's endured for a while. A few lads on the way home the other just got stuck into him. The ratbags floored him and kicked into him while he was down. Bloody cowards, if I catch 'em I'll give them a lesson or two!"
Carl previously virtually standing comatose suddenly became agitated.
"No! Dad. NO! You can't do anything! Nobody can to anything. You'll just make things worse!"
His father and Bayliss locked glances, raised eyebrows, and barely noticed the glassy eyed Carl as he began to put his T Shirt back on.
"Lads eh? Can't kill 'em, can't live with 'em."
The truth of the matter, Carl missed his sister more than his mother. Daniela had lavished her attention on the girl rather than him. Not through any conscious means, she just had more in common with the gregarious and blooming Leisl and simply didn't know how to engage the quiet and retreating Carl. He'd been the sickly, anti-social child, not at all like the women of his household. Wolf had tried hard to involve him in sports or engage him in conversation but he was difficult to draw into the open.
How he missed his sister's company on the way home from school. Now that just the three of them were left at home, Dad had taken to drinking and passing out by 8pm, Leisl had taken to the company of 'strangers'. Constantly out on dates or chatting on the internet, she barely paid him any attention. The time they had together was brief, although she was always kind. He adored the touch of her hand on his cheek or when she took to tickling and wrestling him to the floor, despite the infrequency of their childish play. She was now 17. He could feel her slipping away.
He stood in front of the full length mirror, lining his bedroom door. Flexing areas that should have shown muscle. Sucking in his stomach to enhance his chest. His skin almost alabaster white, his body definition non-existent. He stroked the emerging fluff above his top lip and ran his fingers through lank blonde hair that was desperately in need of a trim. Perhaps Dr Bayliss was right, perhaps he needed a boost to his self-esteem. A better diet, some fresh air and an extra-curricular activity to build his body. Perhaps if he 'boofed up' a little, he'd be bullied less at school. Perhaps Leisl would notice him, and he could become less of a ship in the night to the girl who was once his protector and friend.
"Doin' alright there kid! You ready to take on a sparring partner?"
Carl looked sheepish but was determined, "Sure Coach, as long as he's not much bigger than me!"
Joel Berghoffer was the selected partner. One of the many boys who'd teased him at school. One who'd participated in his last particular beating.
"I'll spar!" Yelled out the cocky boy. Not much bigger than Carl himself, his attitude was enough to intimidate. Ryan first sought non verbal approval. Carl nodded in agreement before his coach barked instructions.
"You're on Berghoffer, glove up!"
Ryan turned to Carl, "He's all talk Carl. You have the speed, the moves and the balance to run rings round him. Stay focused, guard your face and tire him out. Keep it clean, choose your moves. Thirty minutes only. Breaks after each 10."
The boy inserted his mouth guard as Ryan adjusted his gloves and headgear.
The spar took less than 20 minutes and fewer than 5 body punches from Berghoffer before Carl's agility won out. One sharp left hook pushing the cocky teen into the railings and the match decided. A trickle of blood emanating from the bully's lip, a give away look of defeat and to some degree respect, from the former adversary, and Carl knew, this was what he wanted to do. This was how he was going to build his psyche and his body. He was going to be invincible. No more bullies, no more being ignored, he was a warrior, a champion. He might not have brains, but by Jesus, he was going to have brawn.
Continued in Children of Cronos